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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Olympic Stadium: the architecture of Hitler's Germany

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin is an architectural wonder.
Stunning architectural perspectives

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin is an architectural masterpiece. It was the home of Hitler's 1936 Games. The space therefore offers a double reading, to the delight of visitors.

The Olympic Stadium deserves your attention. It is also a personal favourite.

Three years after the establishment of a totalitarian regime in Germany, Berlin hosted the Olympic Games in the summer of 1936. For the occasion, an arena worthy of immemorial empires was built according to the codes of National Socialist neo-classicism. Under the guidance of architect Werner March and with the aesthetic input of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's favourite and close friend, the stadium embodied both the ambitions of power and the racialist myth of a Germanic identity in stone. The director Leni Riefenstahl consecrated the site in her time by making a propaganda film there that testified to her cinematic genius.

Spared during the war, the enclosure located in West Berlin was occupied by the British occupation armies who organised various military parades there. Since the Cold War, it has been the venue for the football matches of the resident club, Hertha Berlin, with its 70,000 spectators, as well as the annual German Football Cup final and various athletics competitions. In addition, concerts and cultural events are regularly organised.

However, the architecture remains that of the Third Reich and, despite the various sporting, cultural or festive celebrations that take place there, the architectural codes remain.

A disturbing architecture

Sinking and gaining in depth, the ensemble despite its crushing dimensions is monumental in its sprawl, and its system of limestone-supported colonnades cultivates a feeling of eternity and solemnity. There is no colour except for the athletics track in the blue of the resident football team. With the exception of the roof protecting the stands and the seats on the bleachers, the stadium retains much of the same configuration as when it was first opened. Only the Marathon Gate partially opens the enclosure, revealing the Olympic bell tower.

Walking around the stadium itself, one will notice the German oak tree, the Germanic columns and the Olympic bell that was cast for the 1936 Games. All these symbols of National Socialism , although partly sanitized, cannot be ignored. Along the monumental and martial alley, a succession of steles honours the victorious German athletes of each Olympiad.

The former Olympic pools appear, which now house a magnificent and terrifying communal swimming pool overhung by threatening tiers of rocky, Germanic stone, and now inaccessible to the public. Finally, the immense May Field, the site of the Hitler Youth's gymnastic sessions, surrounded by stands from another era, also abandoned, and facing a monumental terreplein, the officials' platform for speeches, takes shape. It is not just a sports arena.

A guided tour is necessary

Whether the Olympic Stadium is a great sport arena or an architectural reflection of Hitler's regime and its ambitions is still a matter of debate. In any case, one cannot visit the Olympic Stadium without keeping in mind that the architecture is not neutral and this one is that of the Third Reich. The configuration of the site, but also the ever-present symbols, are so many striking elements that they are confronted with the lightness of the current use of the site. A disturbing collusion of genres and dichotomy.

However, as ideologically marked as the architecture of the stadium may be, it is also grandiose and stunning in its outlook. The aesthetic canons and criteria are wonderfully established, and a visit to the stadium is a must for both the historical and architectural public. Remarkably, the visitor is given a certain amount of freedom to explore the exterior and interior of the stadium individually. It is regrettable that on certain days less than half of the spaces can be visited because of the scaffolding that may be used to organise concerts. The basements are only accessible on guided tours organised by the visitors' service.

Reasons to go

  • A grandiose and monumental architecture

  • A last National Socialist vestige in Berlin

  • Relative freedom for individual visits

  • Very good public transport connections

Reasons to avoid

  • A disturbing collusion of genres

  • Areas closed to the public without warning

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